There is Kentucky, and then there is everyone else, just as it has been all season. But that doesn’t mean that this Final Four is just a formality, an obligatory piece of business leading to the inevitable coronation of the undefeated Wildcats. With all due respect to teams like Arizona and Gonzaga and especially Notre Dame, which scared the bluegrass out of Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final, the three teams accompanying the Wildcats to Indianapolis just might be the most challenging field Kentucky could have faced.
Wisconsin. Duke. Michigan State. There are no Final Four first-timers here, no one in danger of succumbing to the “it’s-an-honor-just-to-be-nominated” attitude. A prediction: You will hear no statements of foolish bravado coming from the Badgers, or, if Kentucky faces them, either the Blue Devils or Spartans. There will be nothing like Daxter Miles’ misguided Sweet 16 guarantee that his West Virginia team would hand the Wildcats their first loss, because these three teams are too mature for that. Nor will there be any buttering up of Kentucky in hopes of catching them with their guard down. Don’t expect Bo Ryan, Mike Krzyzewski or Tom Izzo to joke about calling Jesus for help, as Hampton coach Edward Joyner did in the first round. These teams don’t feel they need a miracle.
They all have reason to believe than they can do this, that they have more than just a puncher’s chance to keep the Wildcats from lifting the championship trophy next Monday night. The Badgers get first crack in a replay of their matchup with the Wildcats in last year’s national semifinals, a 74-73 loss that has gnawed at them and fueled them for a year. “It’s something you never really get over,” center Frank Kaminsky said even before the Badgers knew that Kentucky would be their Final Four opponent. “You think about all the little things that could have made the difference.” The Badgers, who gave coach Bo Ryan his first Division I Final Four a year ago, would like to reward him with his first national championship this time. They won’t have to convince themselves that they can hang with Kentucky. They have already done it.
On the other side of the bracket, Duke and Michigan State have had better teams in other years, but Kryzyzewski and Izzo have won when they weren’t supposed to. By getting to Indianapolis, Izzo has already taken the seventh-seeded Spartans farther than anyone thought they would go. If someone told you that a coach would figure out a way to beat the Wildcats in the tournament, wouldn’t Izzo, the maestro of March, have been a logical choice? As for Krzyzewski, the last time his Blue Devils were as big an underdog as they would be against Kentucky was in 1991, when they faced UNLV in the Final Four. The Rebels entered the game 34-0. They exited 34-1.
None of this means the Wildcats are anything less than an overwhelming favorite, of course. Kentucky is still Kentucky. Coach John Calipari still has enough talent to stock two tournament teams. Seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein can still guard anyone from the paint to the perimeter. Freshman Karl-Anthony Towns still seems unstoppable at times in the low post. They still defend better than anyone in the country, giving up just .856 points per possession. Duke, the next closest Final Four team, is 17th at .933. Even more promising for Kentucky is that the Wildcats proved they can turn up their defense when they need it most, as they did in holding Notre Dame scoreless over the final two and a half minutes to escape in the Elite Eight.
Regardless of who takes home the title, the Final Four promises some of the matchups the nation has been waiting to see. The Kentucky-Wisconsin rematch is the marquee matchup and the second game of the night. Will the Wildcats be able to bottle up Kaminsky, who was held to eight points on just seven shots in last year’s game? And how will they deal with Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker, who torched a very stingy Arizona defense for 20 second half points in Saturday's West Regional final? Without injured forward Alex Poythress, Kentucky doesn’t have a wing defender who seems particularly well-suited to deal with the 6’9” Dekker’s blend of size, shooting and slashing ability.
On the other side of the bracket is the matchup between Izzo and Krzyzewski, two of the best coaches of their generation. "Mike and I have had a lot of battles," Izzo said before the outcome of the Duke-Gonzaga game was known. "He's really going to enjoy it because he's won, I think, nine of them, and I think I've won one. So that's tough."
Actually Krzyzewski has won seven of the eight meetings, including an 81-71 victory at the Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in the Spartans' second game of the season. But that one win for Izzo came in the NCAA tournament—a 78-68 victory in the Sweet 16 in 2005 when Duke was the No. 1 seed and Michigan State was a No. 5. The last time Duke and Michigan State played in the Final Four, the Blue Devils beat the Spartans, 68-62, in 1999. The teams also met in the Sweet 16 in 2013 with Duke pulling out a 71-61 victory.
Coach K appears to have the advantage again this time, with Jahlil Okafor in the middle and Justise Winslow, who with each game becomes more of a force at both ends of the floor, on the wing, plus a solid backcourt with Quin Cook and Tyus Jones. But the Spartans, with Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine making clutch shots, won’t go easily if they go at all.
If the tournament goes according to the oddsmakers’ expectations, we will see Okafor face the Kentucky front line featuring Cauley-Stein and Towns in the championship game, a matchup that every NBA team with a lottery pick would be eager to see. Okafor’s advanced low-post game hasn’t been tested by a defender as skilled as Cauley-Stein, nor has the Kentucky big man had to deal with a center with Okafor’s offensive polish.
Do you want to see a team achieve greatness, or do you want to see an upset pieced together? Are you looking for unlikely heroes or a villian to root against? Cast Kentucky in that villain’s role if you like. The undefeated often have to live with that characterization. But the Wildcats haven’t acted much like villains. Think what you want of Calipari and his reputation, but at least give him this: He has approached his team’s domination with a certain class. Even after the Wildcats made West Virginia pay for Miles’ comments with a 78-39 smackdown, Calipari didn’t come close to gloating. “I don't want my team playing angry,” he said. “I don't want them to be mean, nasty, hateful, I don't want that. It's not us against the world. It is play with joy and love of the game and love of each other. That wins every time.”
It doesn’t always win a championship, though. Kentucky has to do that on the floor, and their Final Four challengers promise to make them earn it.